The British have a way of turning the everyday inside out in a humorous way. Confusions, written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn, and part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is a masterly series of vignettes in which characters try hard to maintain normalcy and decorum, but when a single truth is revealed through an ill-timed but dramatically funny mishap, a more personal and meaningful internal world is uncovered. The cast of five—Elizabeth Hoag, Charlotte Harwood, Stephen Billington, Richard Stacey and Russell Dixon—skillfully play a handful of characters.
In “Mother Figure,” Lucy (Elizabeth Hoag) is a harried and all-consumed mother who doesn’t pay much attention to the ring of the phone, the doorbell, and thus the outside world. When her neighbors, Terry (Stephen Billington) and Rosemary (Charlotte Harwood), stop by to check on her for her husband who is away, she can’t seem to carry on a simple conversation. Instead, she offers juice to Rosemary and milk to Terry, to which he defiantly claims he “hates the damned stuff.” She counters: “I’m not going to waste my breath arguing with you, Terry. It’s entirely up to you if you don’t want to be big and strong.” Terry doesn’t have a clue how to respond. When Terry drinks all of Rosemary’s juice and then insults her, the moment uncovers some bigger marital problems. Lucy, undaunted, doesn’t believe anything can’t be solved with simple directives, and orders Terry to say he’s sorry to Rosemary. Reduced by her stern mother figure, they kiss her good-night before they leave, and when she tells them to hold hands while crossing the street, they oblige, and one feels all has been restored.
“Drinking Companion” shows Lucy’s husband, Harry (Richard Stacey), a traveling salesman who feels his wife is happier when he’s away. Desperate to connect with another adult, particularly a woman, he makes a show of being friendly with Paula (Charlotte Harwood) at the hotel bar. He struggles to pump himself up when he talks about his line of haute couture and colors, but all he really wants is companionship. As he grows drunker he tries not to make advances, but puts his key on the table, and says, “I’m going to leave it there. I’m not going to try and embarrass you, you see, but its there. If you want to pick it up, it’s there. Entirely up to you.” When he goes out to call a cab, Paula and her friend slip away. Poor Harry.
Ayckbourn also captures how communication is about energy and not necessarily words. In “Between Mouthfuls” two separate couples dine at a restaurant under the pretense of having a pleasant evening out. However, their conversations soon turn to jealousies. As things intensify, they continue their argument even when the sounds of their voices drop away. Their jaws, working out the tension around the words, still speak volumes.
Sometimes a small reveal can have big consequences. This is especially true in “Gosforth’s Fete” in which Milly (Charlotte Harwood) is setting up for tea in a tent to celebrate the visit of an important patron. There are many problems that day, including a mute loudspeaker. Gosforth, the organizer of the event and local pub owner, tinkers with the loudspeaker during a conversation with Milly. Unbeknownst to them, he gets it to work at the same time that Milly reveals her news. It’s a cringeworthy yet funny moment because it’s the kind of timing you know can happen but wish it wouldn’t. Milly’s fiancé Martin (Stephen Billington), a Boy Scout leader, is so overwrought from the inadvertent revelation he gets drunk on sherry. In the end, Milly sizes him up and declares that she doesn’t like his baggy shorts anymore, anyway.
Capping the evening, “A Talk in the Park” brings the ensemble together. Each character wants to enjoy the park alone for various, personal reasons. With only four park benches and five characters, one is bound to join another. In a round robin of sorts, one sits next to another, thus intruding on their solitude. However, as much as these people want to be left alone, they don’t hesitate to complain about the person who was “talking too much” to the occupant on the next bench when they move. It turns out they can’t help talking too much as well, and thus the initial occupant moves to the next bench. And so the circle continues. The scene captures both the inside and outside aspect of our desires to be alone, yet at the same time to share and unburden the troubles we carry in our hearts and minds.
Confusions by Alan Ayckbourn is part of the Brits Off Broadway festival and is playing through July 3 in repertory with Hero's Welcome at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St. in Manhattan). Tickets are $70 and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visiting www.59e59.org, where the repertory schedule may also be seen.